Transportation Innovation

Joseph M. Sussman, an external adviser to the Department  of Transportation and professor at MIT, explains why the  stimulus isn't good enough...

Joseph M. Sussman, an external adviser to the Department of Transportation and professor at MIT, explains why the stimulus isn’t good enough and why we should all have to pay to play.

GOOD: Because of the infrastructure spending built into the stimulus bill, this is probably the first time the general public is actually thinking about infrastructure. What’s your take on the bill?

Joseph M. Sussman: It’s the first time since Eisenhower and the interstate system that there has been this national emphasis on building transportation systems. I think it’s very healthy and an important step in the right direction, with all sorts of positive value from the point of view of productivity, and building social capital and the like. What I am interested in assuring is that there is some balance in the way in which these moneys are spent.

G: What should we prioritize?

JS: One area that I believe this country is badly underinvested in, and that could really use much more emphasis in the stimulus bill, is in rail, particularly passenger rail and high-speed passenger rail. If you travel around Europe and Asia you see first-class intercity high-speed rail service. It is really one of the conundrums we face: why this country has never faced up to making the investment necessary to produce this kind of more sustainable transportation system.

G: What’s holding us back?

JS: Very little of it is technical. The Japanese built the first high-speed rail system back in 1964. People know how to do it, but the problem has been that we have never had the political will to do it. The highways are congested, and the air lanes are congested. The idea of taking advantage of the stimulus to build high-speed rail is an opportunity I would hate to see dismissed. It seems to me we are not grabbing that opportunity as we speak.

G: There is a sense in certain circles that high-speed rail is finally getting its due. But you are saying it is still not enough?

JS: Well, it’s getting some attention, but the actual numbers in the stimulus are not such that one could imagine the national investment that one needs to make. I’m not talking about a national network of high-speed rail, because our country is just too darn big for that to be useful. When I say national I mean that we can develop these clusters of high-speed rail. It’s not only the Northeast corridor. There are opportunities in Florida, in the Texas triangle, Chicago, and in the Pacific Northwest. And it could have significant long-term impacts economically as well as environmentally. I’m not one of these crazies who get wild-eyed and say all we should do is rail, no more highways. I realize that’s politically not a reasonable stance to take. The best stance is to continue to develop highways effectively, but the lack of balance in our investment does concern me. These are expensive systems, no doubt, but the long-term benefits are really quite substantial.

G: If the capital for multiregional high-speed passenger rail were committed, what would be the impact five, 10 years down the road?

JS: We are talking 10 years minimum, in terms of time to build these things. But what I hope one would see would be a bold shift from air and car transportation on these less-than-400-mile hops, into high-speed rail service. International practice has shown that the less-than-400-mile trip is just a terrific niche for high-speed rail. I hope it would manifest itself in that, and I hope it would manifest itself with economic development as well. I think there are some tremendous opportunities.

G: Let’s talk about ITS—intelligent transportation systems—which you also work on.

JS: It is basically the use of advanced technology in surface transportation, where one uses communications, computer technology, sensing technology, to allow one to operate urban transportation networks more effectively. So, the simplest manifestation is EZ Pass, where you can pay tolls electronically to avoid the congestion. Now, it can go a lot further, of course. Of interest to me are the traffic-management benefits, where we can talk about the concept of using the ability to price the highways, as a way of managing congestion.

G: How so?

JS: If we are trying to, for example, smooth out the peaks that are caused by daily traffic flows, we can use congestion pricing to give people an incentive to travel off-peak. There is plenty of highway capacity. The problem is people only want to use it at certain times of day. So, the notion here is what we call universal road pricing. And taken to the limit, the idea would be that, rather than a gas tax, we would charge people on a mileage basis. But it wouldn’t simply be on the basis of how many miles you traveled, it would be on the basis of on what road you were traveling, at what time of day, in what kind of car, and so on. The idea is that through pricing, you can induce behavioral change.

G: You chair a committee that advises the DOT. What are you suggesting they focus on?

JS: My committee pushed them toward an additional goal beyond congestion relief, and safety, and environmental issues—those are the traditional hot buttons—to say they ought to also be worrying about what people have called the digital divide, where the more affluent people in our society have more access to internet service and information about transportation services. Those people without the access to technology are also losing access to transportation because they don’t get the information they need to make effective use of the system. When you talk about transportation, it is a network concept by definition. You go from here to there on a transportation network, but it is interwoven with the communication network. It is interwoven with the internet. It is interwoven with energy distribution. So, I think the idea of intertwined networks is an interesting image for how we might proceed.

Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

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